Friday, November 25, 2016

Sin City in the context of American politics

A few months ago, I was hunting around for something to watch on Netflix. By chance I happened upon Rounders, an ancient Matt Damon movie about the game of poker. What I like about the movie is that it illustrates the game of poker as a game of skill rather than a game of luck. Mike, the protagonist played by Damon in the movie, has become skilled in the art of reading body language. Mike has learned how to spot the "tell", a gesture repeated by a player that unwitting conveys the value of his hand. Mike has applied the skill of reading body language to playing a game of poker, thereby removing most of the risk in the game.

I've played Blackjack here and there in casinos and I can see how that can be a game of skill, too. People who know statistics know that Blackjack has some of the best odds against the house in any casino. If played well with some attention to odds and the hand, a player may find that with some discipline, he can make some money at Blackjack.

Developing the skill of playing cards for money takes time and money. Playing poker for a living seems like such boring work: players watch faces and count cards all day, tracking the gestures and the cards that have been played since the last cut of the deck. The business of playing cards for money is probably not the most efficient allocation of resources in a capitalist economy.

More to the point, playing cards seems like an activity that is farthest from meeting basic human needs. It's not industrious, not social, and in fact, it's one of the most adversarial activities one could consider for an occupation short of joining the military or working as a professional kickboxer. Mike, the protagonist in Rounders was only playing cards so that he could finance his law school education.

I've been to Las Vegas (aka, "Lost Wages") a few times and I have found a certain fascination with a city that sprouted up from nowhere to becoming an international phenomenon. Vegas has no natural resources to draw industry to it. In fact, it must draw all resources required to meet human needs to it. Food, water and the raw materials required to build those luxurious hotels all must be imported to support what can best be described as an addiction.

Curiously, for about 15 miles south of Vegas we can find some of the finest, smoothest highway I have ever seen in all my years of driving. It is meticulously maintained and free of any trash that I can see. The authorities seem to want to make sure their customers have a safe journey to the fair city of Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is regarded by some as "Sin City". The major industry, gambling, lures its customers with the chance of obtaining wealth without work (a sin), but the reality is that it provides nothing of the kind, even for the people who own "the house". This is because "the house always wins" and, "the odds favor the house", no matter how generous the payouts at the slots. Security at Vegas casinos is legendary, expensive and required due to so much cash changing hands.

Gambling, drinking, smoking and other "adult entertainment" are all seen by some as "sinful". Note here that I'm not a Christian and place no judgment on the the people who partake in the "entertainment" offered for hire in Las Vegas. I offer no defense or criticism of Las Vegas. I'm simply making observations of one very clear fact: most of what we consider "adult entertainment", including but not limited to gambling, drinking, smoking and strip clubs, do not meet real human needs and they don't solve real human problems. That's one reason why we tax and regulate those activities.

In short order, gambling doesn't solve the human need for industry, to produce and contribute to society. Drinking is just the act of ingesting a dilute poison for the temporary release of inhibitions accumulated since birth. The behavior I've seen in some drunken adults is not that far off from a totally sober toddler. Smoking damages the lungs and brings carbon monoxide into the bloodstream. Strip clubs just short circuit the desire or the need to learn the social skills required for mate selection. None of the "adult entertainment" in Vegas comes even remotely close to satisfying real human needs.

Here is one thing that I find somewhat remarkable about the word "sin". [To] Sin is not to identify some act as being somehow inherently evil. I don't believe in evil anyway, as that is a concept from religion, probably originating in Abrahamic or Judeo-Christian ideology. I replace good and evil with confused and not so confused. I don't believe in original sin since babies are not born with any capacity to commit evil acts. Taken literally, to sin is to miss the mark.

Las Vegas is iconic in American culture. Vegas is depicted in movies and TV as some sort of adult playground where "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas". Unfortunately, much if not all of "what happens in Vegas" doesn't really meet human needs. Much of that, to put it politely, is displacement activity. Displacement activity is what humans do to sooth themselves when faced with discomfort, you know, like sucking a thumb for comfort.

As some of you may recall, I've been on a bit of streak talking up a couple of books I've read called, The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings by Dr. Ross W. Greene, PhD. The goal of those books is to help us observe children through the lens of skills and motivation. I believe that some of the concepts taught in those books can be applied to everyone, adults included.

When adults (parent, teacher, or authority figure) express a desire for compliance with an expectation to a child and the child fails to comply, adults often assume that the child lacks motivation to comply. Most adults will assume that a child is being "willful" in disobeying an adult rather than consider the possibility that a child lacks the skills needed to comply with the demand. Since the assumption is that a child lacks motivation, adults will often offer rewards for compliance and punishment for failure to comply. Gold stars and grounding are familiar examples.

Here's the rub. Reward and punishment just doesn't work with kids. If a child lacks the skills required to meet the demands of the environment, sometimes imposed by adults, he can't comply because he doesn't have the skills to comply.  No matter what is offered for reward or threatened as punishment, If the skills aren't there, no reasonable and aware adult can expect compliance.

And if an adult doesn't know what causes a child to fail to meet his expectations, then all solutions, from reward to punishment imposed by the adult are ill-informed. Unless a serious inquiry is made into the cause for unwanted behavior, like working with the kid to solve the problems that give rise to the unwanted behavior in the first place, no adult imposed solution is very likely to work. Solving the problem that gives rise to the unwanted behavior must be a collaborative effort. When the problem is solved, the unwanted behavior associated with that problem goes away.

To put all of this back in the context of Las Vegas, all of that "adult entertainment" is an ill-informed solution to problems that many adults have not resolved since childhood. That entertainment offers temporary relief from the problems, but does not address the problem itself. Happily, if the problem is resolved, then any desire to go Vegas for entertainment is diminished or eliminated entirely. Notice here also, that just as the motivation to go to Vegas comes from the inside, the influence to direct that desire to Vegas comes from the outside, usually in the form of advertising.

Advertising. I avoid it whenever possible because I consider it garbage for the brain. I believe that if I see something advertised on TV (most especially food), I most likely don't need it. Certain electronics, toothpaste, shampoo, clothing, and new cars are just a few examples of products than can fall into that category. In a generic sense, I may need or want some of those things, but not that shiny thing being advertised right now, and I most certainly don't need them to make me feel better when I'm with my family, friends or coworkers. I don't have to impress anyone and I don't buy things to impress other people. Yet I know that advertising implores me to believe that I must have their product or I'm a failure, I'll have bad breath, people will ignore me, or I will have missed yet another passing fad and be "left out".

It's not just Vegas. Much of what we call "capitalism" seems to operate with a single goal in mind: get the consumer to forgo his real needs for whatever is on sale, and if possible, get that poor creature into debt. Buy a new dress, a new car, an Apple iPhone, go on vacation to Disneyworld, get that mouthwash, buy that beer or frappucino, and watch football or soap operas as the case may be. Get busy buying all that stuff on credit and ignore your human needs for companionship and friendship. Don't worry about the terms on the card, just make the payments.

If I'm not paying attention to my needs, I'm also not solving my problems, and will keep buying products that will only provide temporary relief. Solve the problems and the hucksters have to go elsewhere to sell their stuff, because when I start solving my problems, the behavior that is symptomatic of the problems in my life go away. The urge to buy on impulse goes away, too.

This pattern of urging us to forgo personal needs for expensive things that don't solve our needs extends to public policy. For example, America got involved in two very expensive wars that failed to solve any real problems that Americans faced. Mainstream media told us that America got involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan due to terrorism.

The truth is that the wars were about oil. Oil is used to power our vehicles, it is not used to run our power plants for it is very expensive and inefficient to burn in power plants. But when oil is refined into diesel and gasoline fuels, it has served our country well for a time. I think that the party with oil is coming to an end in the not so distant future.

The wars in the Middle East are about getting other people to change, nothing more. We faced an oil embargo in the 1970's and the result of that crisis is that people became aware that inefficient cars are expensive to drive, so we bought foreign cars which were more efficient than the cars built by American manufacturers. Nowadays, people are starting to buy electric cars, cars that are far more efficient and environmentally benign than gas powered cars. Yes, they have subsidies, but they are nowhere near as costly as the Middle East wars.

We pay an implicit subsidy for the oil industry with our tax money by supporting more than 800 military bases around the world. That military power is what keeps the price of oil low, no reasonable economist will tell you that it is the free market that has maintained historically low prices at the pump for these last few years. That military power doesn't really address the real problem, our dependence on oil. Like the advertising on TV, it is intended to make it easier for us keep on buying cars that require oil-based fuels rather than electric cars. That military power is used to make other people change for us. The more we refuse to change, the more expensive our life becomes.

Therapy, support groups and self-help books all have one thing in common: they can teach us skills we can use to solve our problems. They can provide the empathy we need to relate to others who have the same problems. They provide a forum we can use to discuss our problems and to solve them collaboratively. They provide us with durable solutions that can be repeated as needed whenever a certain problem arises, or the solution can eliminate the problem entirely.

Most politicians in America do not demonstrate empathy for Americans. Even if they make overtures to us, telling us that they really mean to do the right thing, their voting records tell us otherwise. Their voting record tells us that they're listening to the money, not the people. This past election gives us clear evidence of our mounting frustration with a political system that provides no accountability on the part of politicians to the people they represent. Most politicians would rather not solve the real problems that Americans face because it's easier to satisfy a few really big donors than to try to help the people they are supposed to represent.

The problem in American democracy is not any single part of public policy. The problem is that the top 1% have bought the representatives in government and are dictating terms to them, without solving the real problems that most Americans face. This is because the set of problems that the top 1% face do not intersect with the set of problems faced by most Americans. The top 1% have failed to demonstrate empathy for the average American and seem to have little desire collaborate with the rest of us to solve our problems together because they believe they do not share the same problems. We're supposed to be stronger together, right?

Bernie Sanders was and still is the only major politician to show true empathy for average Americans. He understands the problem of big money in politics. He understands the problems that most Americans face and has offered durable, repeatable solutions for Americans that are backed up by empirical evidence to show that they work.

It is truly tragic that the same people who are peddling ill-informed solutions that don't solve the real problems that most Americans face everyday, were able to lie, cheat and steal to defeat Bernie. But perhaps now that the truth is getting out, we can raise awareness so that the next time someone like Bernie challenges the establishment at the next election, we will be better prepared to effect the changes we need. If the 1% truly want to earn their keep, they are going to have to listen to the rest of us or the pitchforks will come sooner than they expect.

Perhaps at the next election, knowing what we know now, we can elect politicians who have true empathy for our concerns, with the will and power to implement durable solutions that help us to solve our problems together.
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